Standoff in Ukraine

Crisis in Ukraine

The allure of the West has helped shape Russian history since Peter the Great three centuries ago. Now it’s shattering even older bonds with its neighbor, Ukraine. A violent rebellion sparked by pro-European Ukrainians seeking a decisive break from the nation’s Soviet past has set in motion a chain of events that’s threatening to split the country apart and has provoked the tensest standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The Situation

European Union leaders struggled to hold together a truce between Ukraine’s army and pro-Russian separatists after an earlier cease-fire collapsed in early 2015. More than a year of rising and falling conflict in rebel-held eastern Ukraine has left more than 6,000 dead, including passengers and crew of a Malaysian Air jet shot down in July 2014. What began as street protests in Kiev turned into a global geopolitical impasse when a popular uprising sent Ukraine’s Moscow-backed leader fleeing. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014, proclaiming a duty to defend the ethnic Russians who dominate the population there. The U.S. and the EU imposed sanctions on Russia that escalated amid accusations that Moscow had sent weapons to separatist militias and dispatched its own troops into Ukraine. Ukrainians voted decisively to tighten ties with Europe by electing President Petro Poroshenko in a national vote in May 2014. Rebel-held areas held disputed referendums on joining Russia. The flow of natural gas from Russia to Ukraine was shut off for six months after a dispute over unpaid bills, though deliveries resumed in time to avert a wintertime energy shortage. Ukraine sealed a $40 billion bailout led by the International Monetary Fund in an attempt to stave off default after the conflict choked the economy and drained reserves.

Source: Kyiv Post/Razumkov Center Survey
Source: Kyiv Post/Razumkov Center Survey

The Background

Ukraine and Russia trace their roots to the ninth century, when a collection of tribes founded Kievan Rus around modern-day Kiev. Ukraine struggled to carve out a national identity, falling under Moscow’s sway through most of the Russian and Soviet empires. More recently the two neighbors have been bound together by energy: Ukrainian pipelines provide transit for Russian natural gas en route to European markets and Russia supplies half of its neighbor’s own gas needs. The Soviet legacy still looms large and Ukrainian unity has often been in short supply. While language and ethnic differences don’t tell the whole story, and the conflict with Russia has brought Ukrainians together, the country of 45 million remains divided with Russian-speaking regions in the east and the Ukrainian-speaking provinces of the west near the border with Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. The country’s trade reflects that fault line, with about a quarter of pre-crisis exports shipped to the EU and the same amount to Russia.

Source: National Gas Union of Ukraine
Source: National Gas Union of Ukraine

The Argument

What began as a dispute over whether Ukraine would face east or west has raised broader questions about its future as a unified state. Western-oriented Ukrainians say that aligning the country’s future with the EU will strengthen institutions, bolster democracy and stem a slide back toward the days of Soviet rule. The enthusiastic support in Russia for Putin’s actions underscored the growing gulf between the worldviews of Moscow, Kiev, the U.S. and Europe. Tying all sides together is Russia’s oil and gas: Discounts from Moscow have amounted to a crucial subsidy for Ukraine that Putin has now revoked, and Russia provides one-third of the EU’s gas imports. In deciding how much to deepen sanctions, European leaders have to face the question of what economic penalty they are willing to pay to rein in Russia, which has already slapped retaliatory bans on food imports from the EU and the U.S.

The Reference Shelf

First Published Jan. 22, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Andrew Langley in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at